Fresh Data

In his talk Secrecy, Archives and the Public Interest in 1970 Howard Zinn famously challenged professional archivists to realize the role of politics in their work. His talk included 7 points of criticism, which are still so relevant today, but the last two really moved me to transcribe and briefly comment on them here:

6. That the emphasis is on the past over the present, on the antiquarian over the contemporary; on the non-controversial over the controversial; the cold over the hot. What about the transcripts of trials? Shouldn’t these be made easily available to the public? Not just important trials like the Chicago Conspiracy Trial I referred to, but the ordinary trials of ordinary persons, an important part of the record of our society. Even the extraordinary trials of extraordinary persons are not available, but perhaps they do not show our society at its best. The trial of the Catonsville 9 would be lost to us if Father Daniel Berrigan had not gone through the transcript and written a play based on it.

7. That far more resources are devoted to the collection and preservation of what already exists as records, than to recording fresh data: I would guess that more energy and money is going for the collection and publication of the Papers of John Adams than for recording the experiences of soldiers on the battlefront in Vietnam. Where are the interviews of Seymour Hersh with those involved in the My Lai Massacre, or Fred Gardner‘s interviews with those involved in the Presidio Mutiny Trial in California, or Wallace Terry‘s interviews with black GIs in Vietnam? Where are the recorded experiences of the young Americans in Southeast Asia who quit the International Volunteer Service in protest of American policy there, or of the Foreign Service officers who have quietly left?

What if Zinn were to ask archivists today about contemporary events? While the situation is far from perfect, the Web has allowed pheomena like Wikipedia, Wikileaks, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and many, many others, to emerge, and substantially level the playing field in ways that we are still grappling with. The Web has widened, deepened and amplified traditional journalism. Indeed, electronic communication media like the Web have copying and distribution cooked into their very essence, and make it almost effortless to share information. Fresh data, as Zinn presciently calls it, is what the Web is about; and the Internet that the Web is built on allows us to largely route around power interests…except, of course, when it doesn’t.

Strangely, I think if Zinn were talking to archivists today he would be asking them to think seriously about where this content will be in 20 years–or maybe even one year. How do we work together as professionals to collect the stuff that needs saving? The Internet Archive is awesome…it’s simply amazing what such a small group of smart people have been able to do. But this is a heavy weight for them to bear alone, and lots of copies keeps stuff safe right? Where are the copies? Yes there is the IIPC, but can we just assume this job is just being taken care of? What web content is being collected? How do we decide what is collected? How do we share our decisions with others so that interested parties can fill in gaps they are interested in? Maybe I’m just not in the know, but it seems like there’s a lot of (potentially fun) work to do.

Always Already New

Always Already New: Media, History, And The Data Of CultureAlways Already New: Media, History, And The Data Of Culture by Lisa Gitelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, mainly for the author’s technique of exploring what media means in our culture by using two examples, separated in time: the phonograph and the Internet. She admits that in some ways this amounts to comparing apples to oranges, and there is definitely a creative tension in the book. Gitelman’s emphasis is not that media technologies change society and culture, but that a technology is introduced and is in turn shaped by its particular social and historical context, which then reshapes society and culture.

I define media as socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation. As such, media are unique and complicated historical subjects.

It’s tempting to talk about media technologies as if their ultimate use is somehow inevitable. For example, Gitelman discusses how the initial commercial placement of the phonograph centered largely around the idea that it would transform dictation and the office. Early demonstrations intended to increase sales of the device focused on recording and playback, rather than simply playback. They didn’t initially see the market for recorded music, which would so transform the device. To some extent we’ve cynically come to expect this out of marketing and “evangelism” about media technologies all the time. But this mode of thinking is also present in purely technical discussions, which don’t account for the placement of the technology in a particular social context.

Getting a sense of the social context you are in the middle of, as opposed to one you one you are historically removed from, presents some challenges. I think this difficulty is more evident in the second part of the book which focuses on the Internet and the World Wide Web against a backdrop of libraries and bibliography. Like many others I imagine, my knowledge of JCR Licklider’s influence on the development of ARPAnet, and the Internet was largely culled from Where Wizards Stay Up Late. I had no idea, until reading Always Already New, that Licklider contracted with the Council on Library Resources (now Council on Library and Information Resources) to write a report Libraries of the Future on the topic of how computing would change libraries.

I enjoyed the discussion of the role that the Request for Comment (RFC) played on the Internet. How these documents that were initially shared via the post, helped bootstrap the technologies that would create the Internet that allowed them to be shared as electronic documents or text. I didn’t know about the RFC-Online project that Jon Postel started right before his death, to recover the earliest RFCs that had been already lost. Gitelman’s study of linking, citation and “publishing” on the Web was also really enjoyable, mainly because of her orientation to these topics:

I will argue that far from making history impossible, the interpretive space of the World Wide Web can prompt history in exciting new ways.

All this being said, I finished the book with the sneaking feeling that I needed to reread it. Gitelman’s thesis was subtle enough that it was only when I got to the end that I felt like I understood it: the strange loop that thinking and media participate in, and how difficult (and yet fruitful) it is to talk about media and their social context. Maybe this was also partly the effect of reading it on a Kindle :-)

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From Polders to Postmodernism

From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival TheoryFrom Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory by John Ridener
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a nice little find for my continuing self-education in archives. As its title suggests, it’s a short survey (less than 200 pages), that traces a series of paradigm shifts in archival theory starting in the 19th century Netherlands leading up to the present. Ridener focuses on the approaches to subjectivity and objectivity in archival theory in order to show how the theories have changed and built on each other over the last 200 years. He does a nice job of sketching the context for the theories, the changes in society and technology that drove them, as well as some interesting biographical material about individuals such as Jenkins and Schellenberg. After having just read Controlling the Past I felt like I had some exposure to contemporary thinking about archives, but was lacking some of the historical background, so this book was very helpful. I think I might have to read Schellenberg’s Modern Archives now, especially because of the NARA connection. But that might get sidelined to read more of Terry Cook’s work on macro-appraisal. My only small complaint is that I noticed quite a few typos in the first half of the book, which got a little distracting at times.